Magazine article Financial Management (UK)

Sarah McCarthy-Fry ACMA and Michael Foster ACMA, Members of Parliament

Magazine article Financial Management (UK)

Sarah McCarthy-Fry ACMA and Michael Foster ACMA, Members of Parliament

Article excerpt

MPs with a background in management accounting are a rare breed. How did you make the transition from finance to politics?

SM: For me it was more about having two parallel careers. I'd always been interested in politics and in essence my job as a management accountant funded that interest for a long time. My father was a trade union official and my grandfather was a member of the original Independent Labour Party, so politics was a part of life in our family.

I fell into accounting early in my career and then became politically active after getting involved with a local campaign against the construction of a waste incinerator. After that, I was elected to the city council and went on to become deputy leader. Not so long ago I seriously considered quitting politics--I felt I couldn't give it enough time outside work and I couldn't be a full-time councillor because the salary wouldn't pay the mortgage. But then our local MP retired and I decided to seek the candidacy.

MF: My background is quite similar to Sarah's. I joined Labour when I was still at school. I grew up in a mining village in Staffordshire where, if you were involved in politics, it was Labour politics. It was a hobby at first. I left university at a time when finding a job as a graduate was impossible, so my main focus was on getting some kind of salary. My dad worked on the production line at Jaguar and he told me about a vacancy there for a financial analyst. That's where I did my CIMA training.

I always kept my political interests going in the background and, as I increased my involvement with the party, I took on more responsibilities. I became an election agent for my local Labour candidate in 1992 and became an MP myself in 1997.

How does your accounting experience inform your work?

SM: I'm on the public accounts committee, so my CIMA qualification obviously helps with that. I think it has made me appreciate the importance of risk management and I've tried to focus on that when questioning witnesses.

I also have great sympathy for small firms that have to handle so much red tape. From a political viewpoint I fully support legislation on issues such as health and safety and employment protection. From a business viewpoint I know it's hard enough for a large company to deal with all the bureaucracy surrounding the regulations. For a small business it's a huge strain.

MF: My eight years at Jaguar have helped me to relate to business issues. My accountancy training has made it easier to focus on the facts, not the fluff. There are lots of lawyers in Parliament and quite a few teachers, but very few accountants. My colleagues may not come to me seeking advice on the structuring of proposed legislation, but they might well ask for my views on the data supporting it.

What other qualities do you need to be an effective MP?

SM: The ability to be totally focused, need little sleep and retain a sense of humour.

MF: You also need a thick skin. Criticism comes more often than praise. When this is personal, you need the self-confidence to believe that you're doing the right thing.

What are the most significant lessons you've learned so far?

SM: When I first came to Westminster last May, people advised me not to try to do it all at once--it's a marathon, not a sprint. Now I know exactly what they meant.

There's so much to take in and the place isn't user-friendly New arrivals are made to feel that they're at the bottom of the heap. All the little rituals and traditions are designed to keep you in your place. I thought that I'd never understand how things worked, but after about six months the fog began to clear. Fortunately, there were 40 new Labour MPs when I started and we're quite formidable when we get together.

MF: The thing that stands out for me after nine years here is that you really have to work for a long time to make even the simplest of changes and deal with the frustration. …

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